Wal-mart PR Officer Posed as Journalist to Spy on Union Workers

(Photo: Agence France-Presse)

Wal-mart PR Officer Posed as Journalist to Spy on Union Workers

Public relations officer attended events and interviewed workers as student journalist with false name

As Walmart union workers in Southern California continue an ongoing fight to improve working conditions in warehouses, workers were dismayed this week to uncover a spy in their midst.

A public relations officer working for Mercury Communications and contracted by Walmart has posed as a journalist, asking questions about the union and the labor campaign.

At a press conference held by the labor group Warehouse Workers United, highlighting the poor working conditions in the warehouses that supply retailers such as Walmart, the PR officer, Stephanie Harnett, posed as a a student journalist called "Zoe Mitchell". She spoke to several activists, incognito, and conducted and recorded an interview with an activist from WWU.

Harnett was discovered to be a spy when members from the WWU came in contact with her on a separate occasion using her real name.

WWU and the Change to Win coalition of unions have been working to improve conditions at Walmart's subcontracted factories in Southern California. The press conference attended by Harnett was called to highlight a report by the National Employment Law Project. The report claimed that big box retailers, including Walmart, intentionally drive down wages and work place safety standards. The report, Chain of Greed, showed Walmart as a main offender.

"Walmart sets the parameters for the working conditions in (warehouses)... but when things go wrong, it's the contractors that are blamed, while Walmart skirts responsibility for its actions and accountability for its influence over those engaged in its massive supply chain," the report stated.

Walmart has since distanced its self from Harnett, or 'Zoe', who was also under the umbrella of Mercury Communications saying they had no direct connection to her intention to spy on the workers.

Members of the WWU are not buying their story:

"Last week when Walmart had the chance to talk about real issues affecting Latino workers in Southern California it instead sent 'Zoe', a fake reporter. A spy. Our door is open. Walmart can change this industry and create thousands of good jobs and improve the quality of life in Southern California, but first it has to come out of hiding," the WWU said in a statement.

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The Guardian/UK: Walmart on defensive after PR officer found 'spying' on union workers

A public relations officer linked to Walmart posed as a journalist at a press conference held by a labor group highlighting tough working conditions in the warehouses that supply big retailers.

Stephanie Harnett, a publicist working for Mercury Communications, which has been retained by Walmart to assist in its effort to open a new store in the Chinatown area of Los Angeles, claimed to be a student journalist called "Zoe Mitchell" when she turned up at the event on 6 June.

She then spoke to and recorded an interview with an activist from Warehouse Workers United, a group campaigning for worker improvements in the notoriously low wage industry where casual labor and poor health conditions are all too common.

The subterfuge only became apparent on Wednesday, when Harnett turned up at a different event and this time used her real name. She was spotted by members of WWU who recognised her and were stunned to see her handing out Mercury business cards with a completely different identity. [...]

WWU officials, who are backed by the Change to Win coalition of unions, are outraged at the stunt. They say Walmart - with its gigantic spending power - has a chance to improve things. [...]

Warehouse worker Santos Castaneda, 25, one of two members of WWU who were speaking at the first press conference, is upset that he was duped by someone working indirectly for the company that he is campaigning against. "I never thought she was going to be a spy. I feel mad and disappointed," he said.

The "journalist" approached Castenada, 25, asked him to tell his story about low wages and tough conditions in his job.

The woman reporter introduced herself to Castaneda as a University of Southern California journalism student called Zoe Mitchell. "She said she was a story teller from the heart. She was very interested in warehouse workers and the working conditions," Castaneda said.

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